<
>

A Test debut beyond Jack Fingleton's dreams

The facade of the Jack Fingleton Scoreboard moved to Canberra in 1983 Getty Images

As a former resident of Canberra, sometime local club cricketer, and ex-member of the ground staff, Nathan Lyon is something of a Manuka Oval expert.

Yet, ask him about Jack Fingleton, the name emblazoned on the manually operated scoreboard that will see its first Test match since its facade was moved from the MCG to Canberra in 1983, and Lyon puzzles: "You've stumped me here. I know it has come up from Melbourne and there is a lot of history. I've worked in it for a lot of hours, so I'll get back to you."

Thousands of spectators at Manuka's inaugural Test and the many more set to watch and listen to the broadcasts would do well to learn about Fingleton, whose life and links to Canberra make him one of the more significant figures in the history of the national capital.

As a determined batsman, Fingleton was a key part of many Australian Test teams during the Bradman era, not least during the Bodyline series in 1932-33, when both he and Don Bradman were accused of leaking their captain Bill Woodfull's dressing-room line to the England team manager Sir Pelham Warner: "There are two teams out there, one is playing cricket, the other is not."

But there was far more to Fingleton's life than the rumours and claims about how that line got out to the press, and the battles he was to have with Bradman in the years to follow. Having taken part in the very first serious cricket match played at Manuka during an Easter carnival in 1930, Fingleton's life was to become richly entwined with Canberra, as a journalist, a confidante of prime ministers, and a vital ally to the nascent Australian Capital Territory Cricket Association.

ALSO READ: Which are the finest cricket books?

In choosing journalism as his profession, Fingleton was to be taken from Sydney to Canberra, where he set up as a foreign correspondent for numerous overseas newspapers in Britain, South Africa and India. Rather than chasing big stories to break, his insightful and analytical pieces projected the happenings of Australian politics to the rest of the world, interspersed with his despatches from the cricket during many a summer.

This role also helped endear Fingleton to the leading political figures of the day, both for the types of pieces wrote and also the fact that they would be seen in London's corridors of power, via the Times, the Sunday Times and the Telegraph. "Most of his life he didn't write for Australian newspapers. He did a lot of his work for South African, Indian and British newspapers, almost like a foreign correspondent here," says his biographer, the ESPN writer Greg Growden.

"It's hard to say what his big, breaking stories were, because he would do overview pieces and didn't have to be that heavy newshound. A bit like his cricket writing, he was more analysis and overviews of what was happening in Australian politics.

"When I spoke to his family, they said the reason why he wrote primarily for overseas papers was that they were more reliable payers, they paid on time, and you knew exactly where you stood. He was pretty fastidious with money, and he always thought the Australian newspaper publishers were cheapskates, not paying their journalists enough. He felt the overseas money was better, also being paid in British pounds, and also at a time when the South African Rand was very strong, basically at parity with Australia."

In this role, Fingleton grew close to three of Australia's most influential prime ministers: the sterling wartime leader John Curtin, his Labor successor Ben Chifley, and then the longtime Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies. "He basically had a direct line to Robert Menzies, and to Ben Chifley, as well as a cricket fan, very close to John Curtin who was a cricket fan," Growden says. "At the time he was there, you had politicians who were serious cricket followers.

"He was such an important political figure for cricket, because if something was needed, he could rock up to the house, get in politicians' ears and make certain they would do something about it, and that was crucial" JACK FINGLETON'S BIOGRAPHER GREG GROWDEN

"He was a big admirer of Curtin and Chifley, so he got close to those two, and Menzies' love of cricket is widely known. He was shrewd as well - as a newspaperman he knew he could use his cricketing background as a way to get in there. He became a confidante of those guys. He got Chifley to help get Harold Larwood out to Australia. He and Curtin used to talk about cricket a lot, and he even asked Curtin's advice about something he wanted to include in Cricket Crisis [Fingleton's account of the Bodyline series] and Curtin told him to take it out."

For a time during the war, Fingleton was called upon to act as something of a buffer between the irascible former prime minister and MP Billy Hughes, whose consistent agitation against the presence of American military power in Australia, personified by the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur, was making life difficult for Curtin as he tried to stave off Japanese expansionist threats to the region following the fall of Singapore.

"He got seconded to be the press secretary of Billy Hughes," Growden says. "Now Billy Hughes was Douglas MacArthur's biggest opponent, he kept sledging MacArthur in speeches and on the floor of parliament, and Fingleton's job was to try to calm him down, because Curtin and MacArthur had become very close.

"Curtin had realised he couldn't rely on [Winston] Churchill, and when he brought troops home from the Middle East around the fall of Singapore, there were all sorts of ructions going on. So Curtin looked towards the United States to provide defence to Australia, and Fingleton was heavily involved in dealing with these guys."

Fingleton's role with Hughes did not last long, as the pair struggled to find rapport. Not even a request to his former team-mate Bill O'Reilly to travel down to Canberra and aid Fingleton helped, so he resigned. Nevertheless, Fingleton's ability to establish relationships on both sides of the House meant that throughout his long stay in the press gallery, it was difficult to discern exactly where his political allegiances lay - the litmus test of an impartial correspondent.

"I honestly don't know whether he was a Liberal or Labor supporter. My feeling was he was probably a Labor supporter but I've never had that confirmed, and he didn't make it that well known. Later, during the Vietnam War, he was prepared to go to jail if his son had been conscripted. So I'd suspect strong Labor allegiances, but he became such a good journalist that he grew very close to Menzies," says Growden.

"Menzies' friendship with Fingleton was genuine. I know they used each other, but they had a strong relationship. Fingleton was a bit sceptical of Menzies' cricketing knowledge, but admired his love of the game. The Keith Miller photo and the Tom Roberts landscape were the only two images in Menzies' office. There are a lot of Fingleton letters in the Menzies collection, and they're very sincere letters where they have helped each other."

This partnership was to lead, in 1951, to the start of the annual Prime Minister's XI match, as a way of ensuring that Canberra invariably played host to at least one high-quality cricket fixture every summer.

"The Prime Minister's XI came about through Fingleton badgering Menzies to do it. In 1951 Menzies had bumped into the president of the ACTCA, Ian Emerton, and he was upset that Canberra had been overlooked for a game featuring the touring West Indian team," Growden says.

"Menzies said 'I'll see what I can find out about it', and a short time later, Emerton saw Fingleton in the parliamentary library and asked if he could pressure Menzies to follow up that PM's XI idea, so Fingleton started working on it. That's where it came from, Fingleton putting Menzies on the spot, saying 'we've got to do this' and Fingleton picked the first team with Menzies, who was to come to realise what great promotion it was for him as prime minister, and so on it went."

In later years, Fingleton became a senior figure known for his assistance to younger press gallery colleagues, and his consistent ability to help assist the ACTCA through his political connections. He lived within walking distance of Manuka Oval itself, slightly up the hill behind the ground and near historian Manning Clark. Had Fingleton been alive today, the tops of the oval's light towers would have been visible from his front garden.

So, at the time of his death in 1981, it was a natural choice for the association to name the scoreboard, formerly part of the MCG, after him. The scoreboard's donation from the Melbourne Cricket Club came with one hitch - postage and handling.

"It was an absolute nightmare getting it transported from Melbourne to Canberra. They had to transport it by some enormous truck, and it cost a bomb [A$ 110,000], problems logistically getting it from Melbourne to Canberra along the Sturt Highway. The cost nearly sent the association broke, and they realised halfway through that building a new scoreboard would have been cheaper.

"But he was such an important political figure for cricket, because if something was needed, he could rock up to the house, get in politicians' ears and make certain they would do something about it, and that was crucial. It would have been at his death that the ACTCA said 'we'll connect the two'."

This connection was marked with some mirth by Fingleton's former teammate Lindsay Hassett, who attended the scoreboard's opening ceremony and shared the experience afterwards to O'Reilly, remarking: "Fancy being named after a bit of second-hand Victorian furniture!"

Thirty-five years on from the scoreboard's unveiling, and Manuka is about to outstrip even Fingleton's dreams for the ground, in hosting a Test match for the very first time. As Growden puts it, "He wouldn't have pushed for a Canberra Test, because he would have realised the power of NSW [New South Wales] and Victoria. There would have been great opposition, because they still looked upon Canberra as a country town, a back block."

Fingleton, though, did a great deal to help Canberra grow from such notions of a 'back block' into the capital it is today. By his residence, by his work, and by his support of cricket in the city. After all, as then governor-general Sir Ninian Stephen said when the name was revealed: "Fingleton was much more than a Test cricketer and a journalist; he was an institution."